History of Plagues and Pestilence


Several plagues throughout human history have killed millions of people around the world. Before the modern age, there were no correct methods of recovering from the plague and preventing them from spreading, which made them much deadlier in the past. 

Thankfully, doctors and researchers today are constantly finding different ways to stop the plague and hinder their spread in various countries, and the medicine or drugs used to cure or prevent the disease are becoming more abundant due to fast production. In order for us to understand how plagues and medicine evolved into what we know them as today, let us right into the tumultuous and tragic history of plagues and pestilence.

Existence of the Yersinia pestis (3500 BC)

Existence of the Yersinia pestis

The species of bacteria called Yersinia pestis has been responsible for three devastating plagues in history, namely the Plague of Justinian, the Black Death, and the third plague pandemic in the 19th century. 

During the first two plagues mentioned, the bacterium was not identified due to the primitive tools that they had to identify the cause of the diseases. However, in 1894, in the midst of the Modern Plague, two bacteriologists named Alexander Yersin and Kitasato Shubasaburo have successfully identified the Yersinia pestis as the cause of the plague.

Yersin named it as the Pasteurella pestis to honor the facility where he worked, Pasteur Institute, but the species was renamed to the Yersinia pestis in Yersin’s honor. In Yersin’s research, he had also discovered that the plague caused by the said species has been affecting rats way before humans contracted the disease.

While many researchers believed that the Yersinia pestis only infected humans at the start of the Plague of Athens, a study done in 2018 suggests that the diseases caused by the species have already affected humans since 3500 BC, as proven by an excavation done in a tomb in Sweden. It is possible that the plague may have killed humans, which prompted a significant period in European history called the “Neolithic Decline.”

Plague of Athens (430 BC)

In 431, with Spartans being able to push back Athens’s land during the Peloponnesian War, the population of the ancient city was forced to live within a heavily populated area in the Attic countryside. Due to the poor hygiene of people and the lack of enough social distancing, a plague spread within the confines of the city.

According to historians, there were around 80,000 to 100,000 Athenians that were killed by the plague, and among those who died were their leader Pericles, his wife, and his two sons named Xanthippus and Paralus. As the plague was not recorded, one of the only substantial evidence that the plague happened is found in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War.


Plague of Galen (168 AD)

Also known as the Antonine Plague, the Plague of Galen was a pandemic that happened in 165 to 180 AD. In studies conducted for research on the plague, it was reported that the plague was brought by the troops who have conducted campaigns in Near East (Western Asia) and were sent home to the Roman Empire. In addition, historians believed that the illness contracted by the people in Rome were either measles or smallpox.

Rafe de Crespigny, a historian and sinologist based in Australia, claimed that the plague might have been already affecting the people of China before the Roman troops came to patrols the areas nearby. Because of this connection, it is speculated that the Antonine Plague may have originated from the country in Asia.

Plague of Cyprian (250 AD)

Another plague affected Rome from 249 to 262 AD called the Plague of Cyprian, which is named after Cyprian of Carthage, the bishop who wrote about the disease in the midst of the outbreak. Like the previous plague, the Plague of Cyprian may have been caused by infectious diseases such as smallpox or measles, but scholars have also stated that it may have been an early case of the Ebola virus.

During the outbreak, it was reported that about 5,000 people were dying each day, and the plague may have contributed to the empire’s weakening power in the period called the Crisis of the Third Century.

Plague of Justinian (541 AD)

The first fully recorded plague in history was the Plague of Justinian, which infected people in several parts of Europe, Africa, and Asia, including the Byzantine Empire, the Sasanian Empire, and the land within the Mediterranean Sea. It is believed that foreign rats that have infested ships traveling from distant lands may have been the cause of the plague.

According to research, it is estimated that 25 to 100 million people died from the disease, making it the deadliest pandemic in history before the emergence of the Black Death. Despite ending in 542 AD within the area occupied by the Byzantine Empire, the plague continued to spread in the Sasanian Empire in 627 AD and other countries until 750 AD.

Black Death (1334)

The Black Death is regarded by many historians as the most devastating plague in human history. Sometimes known as the Great Bubonic Plague, the Black Death is a pandemic that spread in Europe from 1347 to 1351, and continued to infect people in other countries until 1374. Similar to the Plague of Justinian, the Black Death may have originated from rats, but doctors have found out that these rodents would become infected with the diseases after coming into contact with fleas that act as a host for the Yersinia pestis.

The infected rats first appeared in China, and the people infected by the plague then travel in other countries around Eurasia, with most of them going to Europe. Once again, Constantinople, which was the capital of the Byzantine Empire, was affected by a plague, and those who were infected in the capital boarded ships that sailed in Russia, England, Ireland, and many more countries in Europe. 

As people dying from the plague are quickly rising in numbers, doctors during that time were desperate to find a cure for the disease. These plague doctors tried putting cooked onions on infected patients, and some of them even tried applying crushed emeralds despite not having proof of it being effective in curing the plague.

As people began panicking over the rising death toll, they have started spreading rumors about the cause of the disease, with one of the most absurd ones being that Jewish people created the plague to kill Christians and conquer the world. After the rumor began to spread in many villages and towns around Europe, Christians began attacking Jews by burning their houses and killing them. However, the Jewish persecutions stopped when Pope Clement VI announced that the people should stop attacking Jews and repent, as he believes that the plague was brought by God to punish the sinful.

The Black Death reportedly killed more than 400 million people in the world, as the bubonic plague continued to spread until the 20th century.

Bubonic Plague Outbreaks (1582 to 1738)

Even after the end of the Black Death, the bubonic plague still infected many people around the world. In 1582, an outbreak of the bubonic plague occurred within the island of Tenerife. There were about 20,000 people living on the island, and it was reported that more than 5,000 inhabitants were killed by the disease.

A similar outbreak happened in Italy in 1629 to 1631, which claimed the lives of more than 280,000 people. Another plague was reported in Andalusia, and the outbreak killed approximately 20,000 people in 1637. There were many more great plagues that occurred from 1647 to 1738. Here is the list of great plagues during that specified period, as well as the estimated number of people killed by each plague:

  • Great Plague of Seville (1647) – 30,000+
  • Great Plague of London (1665) – 100,000+
  • Great Plague of Vienna (1679) – 76,000+
  • Great Plague of Marseille (1720) – 100,000+
  • Great Plague of 1738 – 36,000+

The Third Plague Pandemic (1855)

The third plague pandemic, often referred to as the Modern Plague, spread across multiple countries, mainly China and India, and killed more than 12 million people in the world. This pandemic was a bubonic plague that spread in many countries due to some of the infected, who were working as seamen, who then spread the plague to the people that they have come into contact with.

The pandemic forced many doctors and researchers to find a cure against the bubonic plague, and thanks to the advancement in medicine and technology, the cause of the diseases as well as the cure for it were developed. 

A bacteriologist named Waldermar Mordechai Haffkine successfully treated the rabbits infected by the bacteria causing the plague in 1896, which in turn allowed him to create a vaccine against the bubonic plague. He tested the vaccine first on himself, and when it turned out to be effective, the vaccine was then made available to the public in 1897.

However, the third plague pandemic didn’t stop there, as a type of plague that didn’t have a vaccine emerged in 1910 called the pneumonic plague. But by 1928, through the development of antibiotics, plagues have been a rare sight from the late 20th century up to the present.

Between 1987 and 2001, there were only 2,847 deaths out of 36,876 that were recorded and reported by the World Health Organization. In the present time, WHO also stated that there are only 200 people dying from plagues each year, and these people are often living in areas where there is no available immediate treatment for the disease. With the help of technology and the advancements in medicine, humans may be able to erase almost all traces of the plague-causing bacteria, just like how we were able to eradicate smallpox in 1977.

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